There was no way that Gottfried Leibniz could have known in seventeenth century that the knowledge of binary arithmetic he expounded would be so useful for modern ICT. Sometimes lessons should be learnt without much fuss about its application. People read Bhagvatgeeta without appreciating its meaning. The other day while travelling in Paris I enjoyed Arabic song played by the Algerian driver. Similar is the case with modern poetry. They say poetry should be appreciated in its rhyme and resonance. Knowledge should never go in vain. Or what?
Is little learning a dangerous thing? Not always. Take, for instance, what I reaped out of my little familiarity of one of the most difficult languages in India. Oh yes, I’m talking of Tamil only.
It was donkey’s years ago, say twenty-nine years to be precise, when I was initiated to this language. I was then a probationer in Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, Mussorie, and my roommate was one Mr Mani. He was allotted to Kerala cadre of IAS and if my memory does not ditch me, Mani had a stint in forest service too, prior to his joining this service. That is how he had carried forward his hobby of bird-watching even when he changed his service. He was a Tamil fellow who encouraged me to learn these three sentences in Tamil: (1) Wanakam Talaivar; Namaste Leader; (2) Wang Nalairkingla; How do you do; (3) Pinadi Sandeepam; See you later. That was all I learnt from him, and there was no occasion to follow any grammar, nor any book prescribed for the beginners. It was rather a case of pure mugging up of sentences like we used to do with the slokas in Sanskrit in our high school days just for quoting them in the midst of our essays with or without context.
Days rolled on but the three-sentence rich Tamil knowledge of mine never receded to oblivion. Thirteen years later I had a stint in Port Blair. And Port Blair, as one finds to one’s amusement, is a place of all languages: from Dogri to Assamese; or from Oriya to Mundari. I heard there was a person in Port Blair those days who even knew Esperanto! As for me, I had a fellow who gave me another couple of sentences in Tamil which I again mugged up. They were (4) Nalike Epu Aruwa? When are you coming tomorrow? (5) Inge Sapad Nalla Irika; Food is good here. Now after sixteen long years I landed up in Coimbatore. Oh my God gracious, it was Tamil once again. But then I had to show my brave front and I did exactly that. I solemnly declared to myself that I was going to learn it…come what may. My first impression was it should not be a problem insurmountable. Before coming to this place I had already got some success in writing in Hindi which is also not my mother tongue. So, why not try something challenging? If only I could learn it this time, I would get a status of, what they call it, a polyglot. So, with all earnestness I set about learning alphabets of Tamil. So difficult did it prove to me that while learning I was only empathizing with the children here, thinking how the poor little kids would be making up to it! And beyond the alphabets I just learnt a few vegetable names and a few additional user-friendly sentences. I can enumerate them: (6) Wange, Wange, Ukarenge; Come and be seated; (7) Beet ke Poglam; Let’s go home; (8) Kunjam Sadham kudungele; Please give me some rice;(9) Malaei Neer Weir Neer; Rain water is life’s water.
So, that is all I could gather so far…my knowledgebase does not consist of even ten sentences. I’m acutely aware of the deficiency. And how can I ever expect to gain any fluency. Tamil people talk so fast, as if they have so much to do after finishing their talk! Even on TV I’ve marked the heroines expressing their love before their lovers with a speed of express train! Like Hindi+English=Hinglish, here there is Tamil+English=Tanglish. Even all my knowledge will not enable me to try Tanglish! So in a way what I have been doing in fits and starts could at best be called wasted efforts, isn’t it?
And, lo, there cannot be such a thing called wasted effort on earth, if one is up to learning an additional language. It may be a few words or a few sentences. The other day I was loitering in Montreaux of Switzerland. It was just a sort of window shopping jaunt, for the shops there had mostly downed their shutters but generously kept their display windows well-lit, open and inviting. A few of the shops were still open. One of them attracted my attention and I decided to go inside. I don’t know if anything in particular could have influenced my decision. Maybe the shop had stored many things, from nail clipper to apples to alcohol. I have seen many shops elsewhere, offering weird combination of merchandise. One of them which I can instantly remember is at Port Blair that sells text books and commodes. Don’t believe me? Just take a stroll from Middle point to Clock tower; you’ll see that for yourself. Another shop at Firayalal Chowk in Ranchi that sells pressure cookers and cigarettes—as for the commonality between them, both the items of merchandise, when used, blow out gas. Anyway, maybe similar kind of incompatible items on the shelves of that Montreaux shop might have attracted my notice. So I went in, not alone but with a couple of friends and between ourselves we were talking in our national lingua franca Hindi.
The shopkeeper was seen listening to us intently…and giving a knowing smile, nay an amiable smile. So one of us asked him if by any chance he knew the language we were speaking. To that he answered in negative but hastened to add that he was sure about our nationality. That we were from India was his guess and it was as correct as the colour of our hair! Then I was the fellow to ask him as to where he was from and his answer was that he hailed from Sri Lanka. And the point of emphasis was that he was a Tamil. So could I have kept myself from using Tamil? Aha! It was my hard-learnt language. At least Wanakam Talaivar; Wang nalairkingla should be used and I used them with relish. The name of the shopkeeper was one Thavam and he was visibly happy, for he would not have got any better customer than us while it was time to call it a day! After a hard day’s work Thavam deserved an extra moment of amusement and we were just distributing that!
And by that time I had picked up two apples. When I asked him to bill me for my purchase, he did not do any such thing. Rather he gave that to me as goody, aha, pro bono. Had he billed me I would have paid two Swiss Francs. I took it as his gift of love and accepted it with thanks.
Nadri, Wanakam. [And that was the tenth sentence, fine?]
Back home we friends did not agree on a point. One of them said that it was only possible because the fellow was from South Asia and such a consideration was just a kind of natural extension of goodness which is within all South Asians. Fine, I had nothing to disagree with my friend, but then again, I had also my point to make. It was my knowledge of Tamil that earned me two apples and none should deny that.
And who says a little learning is dangerous thing? Not always.
A. N. Nanda